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Wade Davis returns to the closer’s role in what is sure to be an entertaining 2020 bullpen experiment

I feel bad for our bullpen. But this is tremendous content.

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Things get a little disconcerting for the Colorado Rockies when we look at their bullpen. While the ‘pen is still very expensive, there are not many options that can be counted on to have success. Then again, relief pitchers are notoriously volatile, so we can probably count on seeing some surprise performances (both good and bad).

Here are the eight likeliest relievers to make the Opening Day roster:

1. Wade Davis (closer)

2. Scott Oberg

3. Jairo Díaz

4. Carlos Estévez

5. Jake McGee

6. Bryan Shaw

7. James Pazos

8. Yency Almonte

The closer

At this time last year, it was Wade Davis. Now, it again looks like it will be Davis.

Davis, 34, pitched 42 2/3 innings of 8.65 ERA ball in 2019. His 8.86 K/9 rate was his lowest since the Kansas City Royals transitioned him from a starter to a reliever. More troubling was his 6.12 BB/9 and 1.48 HR/9 rates, which were both the highest of his career. His 93.2 mph average fastball velocity was also the lowest since his transition to the bullpen.

Davis was relatively effective to begin 2019 but was placed on the 10-day Injured List with a left oblique strain in late-May. Prior to the IL stint, he had a 2.45 ERA, albeit while still walking over six batters per nine innings. After being activated, he finished the year by posting an 11.89 ERA in his final 28 innings. Batters produced a slash line of .325/.426/.567 against him during that span, so it was essentially like the final 141 batters he faced were all Mike Trout.

Davis told the Associated Press he didn’t feel completely recovered until December. If there’s a silver lining to these disturbing 2019 numbers and something to hope for in 2020, it’s that the injury truly played a role.

Additionally, Davis’ home-road splits may tell a story—he had an 11.10 ERA at Coors Field, while that number was 5.40 on the road. That’s a significant difference, but it’s telling that those road numbers still aren’t especially good. I am personally less inclined to believe Coors Field had a huge influence on his season.

In early August, Davis was replaced in the closer’s role by Scott Oberg, who pitched to a 2.25 ERA in 2019.

Nonetheless, manager Bud Black said Davis will regain the closer’s role, while Oberg will return to setup duties. Davis said he “feel(s) good about where (he’s) at now,” so we will just have to see how things turn out in 2020.

Late-inning options

Oberg is likely the best reliever on the Rockies. He is coming off back-to-back seasons with ERA’s under 2.50. Unfortunately, his 2019 campaign came to a close shortly after he was moved to the closer’s role due to a blood clot in his right arm. He also dealt with this same scary issue during the 2016 season but fortunately now appears healthy.

In what was a disappointing 2019 for the Rockies overall, Oberg was a bright spot, along with two other breakout relievers in Jairo Díaz and Carlos Estévez, who produced DRA-‘s of 72 and 84, respectively. They look to be the next most likely options to hold down setup roles. Both were fun stories as neither pitched in the big leagues at all in 2018 and Díaz was finally healthy enough to showcase his potential.

Middle relievers

Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw are still around and making $9.5 million and $9 million, respectively, in 2020.

McGee’s 4.35 ERA in 2019 wasn’t terrible, but he allowed a problematic 11 home runs in 41 1/3 innings and peripherals suggested his ERA should have been closer to 6.00.

Shaw had his second straight season with the Rockies and his second straight season of an ERA over 5.00 after a previous career-high of 3.52 in 2017 with the Cleveland Indians.

Essentially, the Rockies will be hoping for the best with these two, but they could end up being cut á la Mike Dunn if they pitch as poorly as he did in 2019.

James Pazos has an inside track at making the Opening Day bullpen as he is already on the 40-man roster. In a brief 12-game September call-up in 2019, he produced a 1.74 ERA, but he was also shelled pitching in Triple-A for the Albuquerque Isotopes. In a much larger major league sample, Pazos had an impressive 2.88 ERA over 50 innings with the Seattle Mariners in 2018.

Long relief

Yency Almonte is out of options and should have a spot on the Opening Day roster as a result. He was utilized as a starter in Triple-A as recently as 2018, but those days are over, and he has spent time solely as a reliever in the major leagues. Almonte hasn’t been especially impressive in the majors (a 5.56 ERA in 2019), but he’s about as good an option as any in the organization to fill this role at the moment.

Missing the cut

Jesús Tinoco is in a similar situation to Almonte but has an option remaining, likely resulting in him beginning the year in Triple-A.

Phillip Diehl and Joe Harvey also appear ticketed for Albuquerque to begin 2020. Wes Parsons, meanwhile, is being stretched out as a starter this spring.

Four additions to the relief corps will likely begin the year in the minors: Tyler Kinley, Tim Collins, Daniel Bard and Zac Rosscup.

Kinley is on the 40-man roster after being claimed from the Miami Marlins this offseason. He has looked impressive this spring but finds his spot on the roster blocked by more expensive players or those who could be lost on waivers if the Rockies were to try to option them.

Collins and Bard were both brought in on minor league deals with invitations to major league spring training. Collins hasn’t seen regular big-league playing time since 2013 but pitched briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 2019. In a recent interview with Purple Row, Jon Gray mentioned tht he was impressed with Collins after playing catch with him.

34-year-old Bard, meanwhile, is trying to make a comeback after not seeing major league action at all since 2013 with the Boston Red Sox. There was a time when he was viewed as a potential future closer before control issues derailed his career. He would be a great story if the comeback is successful. And hopefully his control has improved since issuing nine walks and hitting seven batters in 2/3 of an inning in Single-A for the Texas Rangers in 2014 (no, those aren’t typos).

Rosscup is a familiar face for the Rockies and was brought in on a straight minor league deal with no spring training invite. He pitched briefly for the Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019. Perhaps his most memorable appearance in a Rockies’ game was when he gave up a go-ahead two-run home run to Ryan McMahon in August of 2018.

It’s not out of the question that a starting pitcher or two could wind up making the roster out of the ‘pen. Right now, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman appear to have the best shot at filling out the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation, but both are out of options and could be transitioned to relief roles if the Rockies elect to go with Chi Chi González and/or Peter Lambert as part of the Opening Day rotation. González is also out of options, so there’s potential that he’s given consideration for a bullpen role depending on how things shake out.

On the farm

It wasn’t long ago when Justin Lawrence (No. 25 PuRP) seemed like the future closer of the Rockies. He had a disappointing 2019 campaign and was suspended 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs this offseason (though Lawrence told the Denver Post his suspension was the result of “obvious contamination” of a supplement).

Ben Bowden (No. 11 PuRP) started out 2019 as the closer for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats and was about as lights out as one can get (1.05 ERA and 20 saves in 26 games) but struggled upon a promotion to the hitter-friendly confines of the Pacific Coast League in Albuquerque. If he can improve his numbers, he has a decent shot of making the big-league roster at some point in 2020.

Tommy Doyle (No. 16 PuRP) and Jacob Wallace (No. 26 PuRP) could become factors in 2021, while Riley Pint (No. 22 PuRP) may need to turn his career as a starter into that of a reliever if he wants to make the big leagues.